Sierra Space unveils fully integrated Dream Chaser spaceplane amid test campaign – Spaceflight Now

Sierra Space unveils fully integrated Dream Chaser spaceplane amid test campaign – Spaceflight Now

For the first time, Sierra Space has attached its Dream Chaser spaceplane to the Shooting Star module amid shaking table testing at NASA’s Armstrong Test Facility in Ohio. Image: Adam Bernstein/Space Flight Now

An orbiting space plane is one step closer to returning to the International Space Station. As part of an ongoing test campaign, Sierra Space has attached its Dream Chaser spaceplane to the Shooting Star module for the first time at NASA’s Neil Armstrong Test Facility in Sandusky, Ohio.

The spaceplane will be the third and final cargo spacecraft contracted by NASA to transport supplies and science experiments to the International Space Station as part of Commercial Resupply Services Contact 2 (CRS-2). In 2016, Northrop Grumman, Sierra Space and SpaceX were each awarded several flights under the agreement, which has a maximum value of $14 billion.

“It gives all of us at Sierra Space a great sense of pride and a profound reflection of the importance of what we truly do,” said Tom Weiss, CEO of Sierra Space. “The work we are doing will change everything and set new steps for the next generation to follow.”

The company faced several years of development delays to get Dream Chaser to this point. But recently, the spaceplane, dubbed Tenacity, began the final phase of testing before being shipped to Florida for launch.

“We’ve come out of years of development, years of hard work, and years of solving really tough engineering challenges that come from revolutionizing the way we do things,” Weiss said. “And we’re really excited as we enter this year into NASA’s orbital operations. It’s a year in which we change how we connect Earth and space.”

Currently, Tenacity and its Shooting Star module are placed on top of a shaking table inside NASA’s Mechanical Vibration Facility at ATF. Jimmy Kenyon, director of NASA’s Glenn Research Center in nearby Cleveland, Ohio, described the system as “the largest and highest capacity spacecraft vibrating system in the world.”

“This facility was home to and was responsible for critical mission testing of the Orion spacecraft as well as other vehicles, allowing us to understand the harsh flight environment before they actually went to the launch pad,” Kenyon said.

Since early January, the Dream Chaser has been subjected to numerous vibration tests, both horizontally and vertically, simulating the vibrations caused by launch and landing. A Sierra Space spokesperson said this phase of testing should end in the next two days.

It will then be transported to the Space Propulsion Facility where it will undergo testing in environments that simulate the rigors of being in orbit.

“We will install the vehicle at the facility, and we will reduce the pressure and temperature to the very low pressures and very low temperatures that the spacecraft will experience when it enters orbit,” Kenyon said. “Then, we will use a dynamic heating element to walk around and simulate the heating environment that the spacecraft will experience due to the sun, and solar heating while in orbit.”

There is no set timeline for how long the next phase of testing will take, but Kenyon said the plan is to be able to ship Dream Chaser and its Shooting Star module to Kennedy Space Center in Florida for launch in the first half of 2019.

Return of orbital spaceplanes

The Dream Chaser Tenacity flight will be the first of seven Sierra Space contracted cargo missions to the International Space Station. On Thursday, Weiss said Tenacity will be used to fly their first four flights as they work to bring their next spaceplane, dubbed “Reverence.”

“The Dream Chaser was designed from the ground up, to be highly reusable, highly reliable, and focused on converting a vehicle quickly,” Weiss said. “We’ll learn a lot between mission one and two, and we’re still learning when we get to mission three and four, but in the long run, this is Our goal is to transform the car, make it fly, get it working again and serving customers.

Weiss said the vehicle is designed for 15 missions, but he believes it will be able to go further.

The name of Sierra Space’s first Dream Chaser spaceplane, Tenacity, is emblazoned across part of the hull near some heat shield tiles. Image: Adam Bernstein/Space Flight Now

After this first mission, NASA will have to chart cargo flights between Northrop Grumman’s Cygnus, SpaceX’s Cargo Dragon, and Dream Chaser. Phil Dempsey, technical director for NASA’s International Space Station Vehicle Office, said they haven’t established a monthly cadence for these flights yet.

“We’re not planning our actual cadence that much. What we’re doing is we’re taking a look at the overall capability that we need. And so, if you look today, we have missions procured through 2026 across all three providers,” Dempsey said. “As we go, Moving forward, as we look to completing the remainder of the contract, we will take a look at the capabilities as well as the needs of the ISS and we will determine that.”

One of the unique features of the Dream Chaser, compared to the Dragon or Cygnus, is its ability to land on commercial runways at airports outside those at Kennedy Space Center or Vandenberg Space Force Base. For now, they will focus on landing in those two key locations to better accommodate CRS duties, but other opportunities will come into the mix as the vehicle matures, Vice said for now.

“We are a company focused on serving a billion people. We are not a company focused on niche markets. And so, the Dream Chaser was designed to be able to land on runways and leverage the global infrastructure, the amount of capital that has been built, to build runways that can accommodate a 737.” Or the A320 NEO, that was a design milestone for us and we were able to capitalize on that,” Weiss said.

“The reason we spent so many years developing state-of-the-art hydrogen peroxide and RP-1 refined kerosene is to make sure we have this type of fuel that does not contain hazardous materials, meaning highly degradable materials.” he added. “So, it enabled us to think about ways we could put Dream Chasers in centers around the world.”

Vice reported that they are in discussions with Japan so they can launch and land Dream Chasers in that country. They are also looking for other opportunities around the world.

Tom Marshburn, a former NASA astronaut and current medical director for Sierra Space, said he is jealous of the Crew-8 and Soyuz MS-25 astronauts who will greet the Dream Chaser when it arrives at the International Space Station for the first time. He flew on two Space Shuttle missions as well as Crew-3 before retiring from the astronaut corps last year.

“This shuttle shape is very iconic and they will be very happy to see it arrive again at the space station: the arrival of a winged vehicle and a lifting body,” Marshburn said. “I’m a little jealous to see it. I wish I could be there once it gets into space, but at the same time, as we talked about, there’s a tremendous amount of humbling to see what’s been accomplished when so many great minds come together to build something like this.”

Former NASA astronaut and current Sierra Space chief medical officer Tom Marshburn discusses the development and impact of the Dream Chaser spaceplane at NASA’s Armstrong Test Facility on Thursday, February 1, 2024. Photo: Adam Bernstein/Spaceflight Now

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